Fraser Nelson

Has Boris got cold feet over ‘freedom day’?

Has Boris got cold feet over ‘freedom day’?
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A very strange ‘freedom day’ greets us on Monday. Legally, almost all restrictions will be lifted. But practically, ministers are deeply worried by the surge of the Indian variant and the rise of hospitalisations to around 600 a day — a figure that will probably double according to the Bristol University PCCF project (which we at The Spectator find to be the most reliable). Hence this massive fudge: the government abolishing the mask mandate but saying it ‘expects’ people to wear them in shops and crowded spaces nonetheless. The NHS will continue to mandate them in hospitals. Then perhaps the biggest surprise: the vaccine passport U-turn whereby companies are told it’s their social duty to ask people for proof of immunity or a negative test.

What's happened? From my inquiries, it seems that Boris Johnson has got cold feet but it was too late: he had boxed himself into a corner with all his promises of 19 July going ahead, being irrevocable etc. Given that delaying reopening was impossible politically,  he is now doing everything he can short of a formal about-face. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty has drawn up a list of things the government can do to mitigate the impact of ‘freedom day’ — lots of heavy-handed ‘advice’ which, in the case of vaccine passports, is coupled with a threat that employers could be forced to check patrons’ immuno-ID if they don’t volunteer. Nightclubs have said they won’t (no surprise given that more than 80 per cent of under-30s are not double-jabbed) but some theatres say they will do so.

So where does it end? Scotland was a couple of weeks ahead of England with its Indian variant surge and cases are now coming down — crucially, hospitalisations never exceeded a quarter of the second wave peak.

So the same will likely happen in England. But it was no doddle. A few hospitals in Scotland (Dundee, Inverness) reached their peak and had to start cancelling routine operations. There is a reasonable chance that will happen in England too, which chimes with the Bristol projection that daily hospitalisations peak early next month, at just over 1,000 a day.

It seems political expectations still have not caught up with the reality of the surge in the Indian variant. There is no ‘freedom’ on Monday, not in the proper sense of the word. We’ll be reopening into the biggest wave yet, but one we are prepared to face thanks to the vaccine.

Read Fraser’s cover piece here, or in this week’s magazine, out now.